Meet Nancy Collins

This interview originally appeared in

You quite literally wrote the book on stationery engraving. Your book The Complete Engraver not only discusses the art of engraving, monograms, and more – but it’s also a comprehensive guide to the etiquette and history of social stationery. Let’s start with the basics. What is engraving?

Think of engraving as the opposite of letterpress, which is relief printing.

In intaglio, artwork (a design or lettering) is cut into the surface of metal, ink is applied, then wiped clean, leaving it only in the cuts. To make a print, paper is placed on top and a whole lot of pressure is applied, about two tons per square inch. When the paper is removed, the artwork has been transferred to the paper, the ink is raised and a distinctive mark called a bruise is left on the back.

We specialize in bespoke and engraved social stationery, which means our letter sheets and note cards, calling cards and envelopes are completely custom and our process is very much by hand.

While making the print is the same for all stationery engraving, there are various means by which artwork is cut into the metal: Hand engraving, pantograph engraving, and photo-engraving.

Tell us how you got started. Why stationery? Why engraving?

In undergraduate school I took a printmaking class and fell in love with etching. In graduate school I was introduced to a commercial engraver where I went on press to oversee the custom color mix of the ink and I TOTALLY fell in love. I’m one of those rare birds who has a BFA and MFA in the same discipline, graphic design, and I’ve been practicing graphic design every since (I’m Special Projects Director of AIGA New Orleans directing the History of Graphic Design in South Louisiana Project).

At one point in this extensive career, the computer happened, and the low-touch/hi-tech nature of the then unfolding field of digital graphic design broke my heart. Imagine: there I was in my Soho, NYC studio when the methods and procedures, materials and supplies, the business relationships I’d assiduously studied, garnered, and learned developing my career became suddenly obsolete. Whole industries such as typesetting, film photography, film and print retouching, color separating, plate-making, and engraving were literally put out of business by desktop publishing. Sad but true.

By the late 1990s it became painfully clear that to survive I had to make a choice: adapt or perish. Being a romantic at heart, and to save my sensitive, creative soul, I figured out the following scheme…by day I plied my [new] digital graphic design trade catering to clients such as MOMA, Bergdorf Goodman, Williams-Sonoma, Clinique. By night I turned to Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer, specializing in bespoke hand engraved social stationery.

In today’s very digital world, a handwritten note makes a real impact. One element of your business is helping people develop monograms, crests, and more for their social stationery. Tell us a bit about your process.

Our process for creating the perfect cipher, monogram, or letterhead is much like the process used for creating a brand identity. Once commissioned, we bring the client through a series of interviews and questions similar to what is used in brand research. This investigation discovers the core visual representation of who you are and how you wish to be perceived. Remember, when someone receives a note, calling card, or letter from you, you have one shot to make that perfect impression. We look at a lot of reference material, historic and contemporary. We talk a whole lot, and/or we exchange emails sharing photos and images from the environment, museums, magazines, blogs…etc. We look at colors for ink and papers. All ink but black is mixed by hand and to eye; we can match an eye color or lock of hair. I stock my own distinctive #9 onion skin paper, and super-thick museum board; every other kind of paper we source from scratch and from around the world. Clients are encouraged to source and purchase paper on their own (we guide them through these choices, quantities, shipping, and handling—paper is extremely delicate and should be handled with great care).

Bespoke monograms and ciphers are drawn by hand. Sometimes the design is inspired by an historic model (you can read more about monogram history here), and for other clients, the design is imagined in my head and then drawn in pencil on paper, and then tracing paper. After a design is modified, being perfected to a client’s tastes and needs, the drawing is given to the engraver who cuts the design by hand. This being said, we are also happy to create digital designs, it just depends on the project and which method of engraving, or combination of methods, is best. There are a lot of variables to the process of creating stationery that is truly bespoke.

You’re clearly very well versed in stationery etiquette. What are some of the common misconceptions or mistakes that people make?

  • There really are no mistakes when hand-writing personal notes and letters. The point is to connect.
  • What if I have terrible penmanship? This does not matter. One of my oldest friends has illegible hand-writing, but I always get that warm-fuzzy feeling receiving a note or letter from him. Seeing his familiar, distinctive scrawl on an envelope in my mail box is like seeing an old, dear friend.
  • When is it appropriate to write a thank you note? Always, whenever it comes to mind.
  • Is it absolutely necessary to buy expensive stationery to send someone a nice note? While I personally prefer bespoke hand engraved letter papers for my correspondence, the answer is: No. Again, the point is to connect, and not necessarily to illustrate how much money you’ve spent on a card. It was once fashionable to write personal letters on hotel stationery. I refer here to Holiday Inn and Best Western, and not just Le Bristol or Carlyle! So I say, anything goes.
  • In a social setting, what’s the best way to exchange contact information? Carry calling cards and personalize the contact information on the spot with a pen.

Is there an element of stationery that was popular in the past that you would like to see brought back into the mainstream?

Yes, calling cards! From The Complete Engraver:

“Calling cards, or visiting cards, were traditionally small pieces of card stock bearing just an elegantly engraved name on the front, with no contact information. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the miniscule missives, left with the servant at the front door, were the basis of social form and etiquette. … Calling cards could be personalized with a note or an address by hand. One custom was to strike out the engraved name and sign the name by which you wanted to be referred. Specific coded meaning could be conveyed through the folding of corners: an unfolded card meant that it was delivered by a servant; a fold of the upper right-hand corner meant that someone had visited in person; a fold of the upper left-hand corner conveyed congratulations or felicitation; and a fold of the lower left-hand corner expressed condolence or was done to say good-bye. ‘P.P.C.’ (pour prendre congé, ‘for leave-taking’), written on the lower right-hand corner, indicated that someone was taking leave (perhaps leaving town for the summer season). As the convention was to return a call with a call (or accept the initial caller on his or her next visit), an unreturned card or, worse, a card that was returned in an envelope meant that the caller’s social advances were not accepted—please do not call again. … Today, calling cards are enjoying a revival. We don’t go calling anymore, and we no longer fold the corners up or down, but these little wonders can still convey notes and messages in a personal way. A contemporary calling card functions equally well in casual, formal, or intimate social interactions. When meeting someone for the first time, you can personalize a calling card with the quick flick of a fountain pen by adding your home phone number if you like the person; giving your work number if you are not sure; jotting down your cell phone number if you really like the person; or making up a number if you never want to hear from them but don’t want to appear impolite.”

A little known stationery fact?

A woman’s monogram can be used throughout her life, even when she marries, divorces, re-marries or is widowed. Whether it is her maiden name or her married initials, a woman’s monogram is always appropriate for communicating to family members and close friends.

Can you tell us about a favorite project you’ve worked on? (Images welcome!)

My current favorite project involves a two-color, two-die figure and monogram. Each piece is being engraved by a different engraver, on opposite coasts, so the logistics are interesting. I do a lot of this type of work, coordinating far-flung teams of artisans and creative talent, materials and processes. It’s fun, I get great pleasure from collaborating with clients who enjoy involved and elaborate processes.

A previous project we worked on was capturing the essence of indigenous plants in the house stationery for a client’s new summer home. This was a perfect project for photo-engraving because we manipulated scans of live plants to do the color separations simulating the modulation of dark green, to light.

Why do you call New Orleans home?

New Orleans is one of those rare places left in America where all you need to do is scratch the surface to find original, historic stuff like fantastic 18th, 19th and 20th century imagery, narratives, characters and ephemera. New Orleans is old, its soul is old, its virtue less than shining and its social codes and morals, umm, well, imaginative. I love New Orleans because here I never get bored.

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